BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (80) What do we mean when we say that the Church is holy?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

One, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. It is easy to accept that the Church is one, that she is Catholic, and that she comes from the apostles. But holy? Many people would laugh at the claim. They can easily cite historical facts to prove that there is nothing holy about the Church.

The first thing we must say is that the holiness of the Church does not refer primarily to its members. Let me just cite two anecdotes about Pope Benedict and Pope Francis to explain what I mean.

Peter Seewald, in one of his interviews with Pope Benedict XVI published under the title Last Testament: In His Own Words, asked the Pope Emeritus: “So when you stand before the Almighty, what will you say to him?”

Benedict replied, “I will plead with him to show leniency towards my wretchedness.”

The faith makes a believer aware of his own sinfulness.

The same point is illustrated in another interview, this time with Pope Francis. After his election, a reporter asked the new pope: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (Jorge Mario Bergoglio is his baptismal name.)

The Holy Father answered: “I am a sinner.” It seems that this is also what he said when he was asked by the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel if he would accept his election. He said to them: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

When the Italian magazine Credere (2 Dec 2015) interviewed him, the Pope said, “I am a sinner … I am sure of this. I am a sinner whom the Lord looked upon with mercy. I am, as I said to detainees in Bolivia, a forgiven man. … I still make mistakes and commit sins, and I confess every fifteen or twenty days. And if I confess it is because I need to feel that God’s mercy is still upon me.”

So why do we say that the Church is holy? The CCCC (no 165) gives six reasons: “The Church is holy [1] insofar as the Most Holy God is her author. [2] Christ has given himself for her to sanctify her and make her a source of sanctification. [3] The Holy Spirit gives her life with charity. [4] In the Church one finds the fullness of the means of salvation. [5] Holiness is the vocation of each of her members and the purpose of all her activities. [6] The Church counts among her members the Virgin Mary and numerous Saints who are her models and intercessors.” And then it concludes: “The holiness of the Church is the fountain of sanctification for her children who here on earth recognize themselves as sinners ever in need of conversion and purification.”

All of us Catholics have become so not because we think that we are already holy. In fact, it is the exact opposite. We have become Catholics because we know that we are sinners. Each time we attend Mass, the Church invites us as we begin the Most Holy Sacrifice to “acknowledge our sins” and we respond saying that we “confess … that we have sinned.” By admitting that we are sinners, we also express the reason we become Catholics: the Church possesses the means and the power to forgive us, purify us, heal us and make us holy.

This is why Jesus taught us, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”(Mark 2:17). If you know you are a sinner, the best thing you can do is to be a Catholic.

We need to remember, however, it is not enough to be a Catholic. We need to make frequent use of the means that the Church gives us to be forgiven, purified, healed and made holy – prayer and the sacraments.

This is why Pope Francis said, “I still make mistakes and commit sins, and I confess every fifteen or twenty days. And if I confess it is because I need to feel that God’s mercy is still upon me.”